The earlier they trot out the decorations, the more quickly arrives the seasonal fatigue.
So if you would rather choke on an undigested bit of beef than pay dearly for Ebenezer Scrooge, if you secretly hope the "Christmas Schooner" will never leave dry dock, if you think all elves should be squashed underfoot and all nutcrackers smashed, if you prefer your reindeers as steaks over hot coals, or if you just congenitally beg to differ with "It's a Wonderful Life" ... how might you spend your December in a holiday-free zone while still getting out and seeing some shows?
Here in the long, noir shadow of Black Friday, we're here to help all you members of the bah, humbug set.
Steppenwolf, where they're more likely to trim a tree with Rondi Reed than tell a schmaltzy Christmas story, is always ground zero for the anti-sentimentality set. This season's new show, which opens Thursday, is the Nina Raine play "Tribes."
I cannot yet speak to Austin Pendleton's new production, which stars Alana Arenas, Francis Guinan and Molly Regan, which will be staged in a far larger theater than the Barrow Street Theatre, where I caught David Cromer's superb off-Broadway production. But the play is a most interesting work, partly a portrait of one of those hyper-intellectual, academic families that also manages to be wholly and witheringly dysfunctional, and partly a look at the politics of deafness. It's a frequently funny script, but also caustic and scorchingly smart. No season of goodwill here.
What about the shows I can speak about?
Well, if Thanksgiving was enough to remind you of what horrors can transpire when families come together, the black comedy "Appropriate" at Victory Gardens might well feel cathartic. Penned by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, this is an acerbic, take-no-prisoners script but also quite hilarious in places. Business has been very solid at the Biograph Theatre, and a few extra shows have been added. It's a good night out.
I thought "Detroit '67" at Northlight to be not as good as "Appropriate" — at this juncture anyway — but that play is not without interest, especially since I suspect it has tightened some since the meandering opening night, when the show felt under-rehearsed (which is why it isn't on my list of recommended shows). But if you are interested in the history and fate of the Motor City, "Detroit '67," which is the work of a very promising young writer named Dominique Morrisseau, offers some provocative insights into how the past has informed a bankrupt present. I was struck by how engrossed the Northlight audience seemed during this piece.
Similarly moved is the TimeLine audience for Larry Kramer's seminal drama about the politics of AIDS, "The Normal Heart." This too was a production that seemed to have a ways to go early in its run, but the impact of the piece, directed here by Nick Bowling and starring Cromer, was already palpable. There has been no more powerful theatrical reminder this year of how much, or how quickly, the world has changed. "The Normal Heart" is much about death and dying, but viewed from this remove, you cannot look at these characters and not feel the desire to tell them to hang in there, with so much good being so soon ahead.
I know that any show by Charles Dickens evokes the specter of seasonal appeal, but the novel "Great Expectations" truly has nothing to do with Christmas Eve redemptions. It is, of course, a fantastic story with broad appeal for all family members. The current production at Strawdog Theatre, which features an intensely dramatic new adaptation by Gale Childs Daly, is really a bracing evening of theater, superbly directed by Jason Gerace and featuring one of the fall's best performances, courtesy of Amanda Drinkall.
I'm told that "Great Expectations" has become the fastest-selling show in Strawdog history, and it's not hard to see why. It's the best storefront-type show in Chicago since Mary-Arrchie's "The Glass Menagerie," and a reminder that some of the most inspiring theater in this city requires you to ascend (or descend) a steep flight of stairs. And at Strawdog, I do not recall being obliged to pass any mistletoe on the way.